Dr. Claire Karekezi
“I want to go back. I have this strong sense of pride and responsibility towards my country,” says Dr. Claire Karekezi. (Photo: UHN)

From a small country in eastern Africa, Claire Karekezi always dreamed big. After finishing high school, she decided to become a doctor. She joined the National University of Rwanda on a full governmental scholarship for outstanding students and completed the medical program in 2009.

 "Even though Rwanda has made remarkable steps towards women empowering, I knew I had accomplished a lot in a society where usually a woman would settle after school," Claire told UHN News. "But I knew I wanted more."

During medical school, she got to be an international visiting student in Neurosurgery in Sweden, at the Linköping University Hospital, and participated in an elective program at John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford University, in England.

Through these international experiences, Claire had the opportunity to observe renowned neurosurgeons, to be in the OR and even to see and touch a human brain for the first time. She was hooked. She wanted to become a neurosurgeon.

At a time when Rwanda only had one neurosurgeon for a population of 11 million and not a single neurosurgical training program, her plan seemed like a far-fetched dream.

"It seemed impossible for anyone in Rwanda to become a neurosurgeon, especially for a woman," she says. "But I had made my decision, so I started digging."

While working as a medical officer and general practitioner in Kigali, Claire did her research and applied for a five-year residency program in neurosurgery in Morocco at Mohammed V University of Rabat – an accredited centre by the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies (WFNS).

And she didn't stop there. Once she concluded the program in 2016, she was an international visiting surgeon for three months at the Brigham and Women Hospital at Harvard University – sponsored by the American association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS). She finally landed in Toronto in July, 2017.

She had been selected for a clinical fellowship in neuro-oncology and skull base surgery at Toronto Western Hospital – University of Toronto, funded by the Greg Wilkins-Barrick Chair in International Surgery – a very selective program that only funds two fellows from around the world per year.

Dr. Mark Bernstein
“Her talent and passion for building medical care capacity in her country is remarkable,” says TW neurosurgeon Dr. Mark Bernstein, current Chair Holder of the Greg Wilkins–Barrick Chair in International Surgery. (Photo: UHN)

When Claire goes back to Rwanda, in July, she will be the country's first female neurosurgeon and fifth neurosurgeon overall, for a population of 12 million. She will also be specialized in neuro-oncology and trained in highly-advanced procedures.

"I know I will face many challenges regarding infrastructures and the lack of other supporting specialities, but I feel ready to tackle these obstacles to help advancing Neurosurgical care in Rwanda," she says.

"Not only I want to go back, but I also have this strong sense of pride and responsibility towards my country."

Her main goals in returning to Rwanda will be to get students interested in Neurosurgery – now that there is a post-graduate program in Kigali – and to help initiate a neuro-oncology centre in the country.

Road to success

Pursuing her dream abroad hasn't been easy. Although she's met great people along the way, Claire says it's hard to be from a developing country, from Africa, and also being black and a woman.

"Being an outsider, you have to prove yourself and show that you are deserving of that opportunity every step of the way," she says.

"But I learned that if you work hard and if you are able to build relationships, no matter who you are or where you come from, things will eventually fall in place and you will succeed."

Claire says she is very grateful to be finishing her fellowship at Toronto Western and to have had the opportunity to participate in several complex cranial surgeries with Drs. Mark Bernstein - current Greg Wilkins-Barrick Chair, Fred Gentili, Gelareh Zadeh and Paul Kongkham.

"They are all amazing surgeons and it has been very inspiring to work with them," says Claire.

"Not only they are great teachers, but mentors who really helped me through my professional and personal development here in Canada."

For the neurosurgery team at UHN, it was a privilege to have Dr. Claire Karekezi as a fellow and to be part of her career path.

"Claire is the perfect example of how far you can get through personal perseverance," says Dr. Bernstein.

"Her talent and passion for building medical care capacity in her country is remarkable and this is exactly what we want to promote at UHN through the Greg Wilkins-Barrick Chair Fellowship."

Established in 2011, in honour of Greg Wilkins, the Greg Wilkins–Barrick Chair in International Surgery supports international missions to build healthcare capacity in developing countries. These missions are led by Dr. Mark Bernstein – the inaugural and present Chair Holder.

The Chair also funds international students and fellows like Dr. Karekezi with the goal of advancing training, research and international collaboration. ​

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